7th District School Board candidate Kirsten Gray is a long-time resident of Church Hill. She runs a small business on Broad Street, and has had 2 daughters in Richmond Public Schools.
I caught up last week with Kirsten Gray at one of our local bakeries a few weeks ago for conversation about our schools.
What’s your experience with the Richmond public schools
My experience is being a parent of two Richmond public school kids, and it was sheer struggle – where you felt like you needed to pop up a tent next to the school and go in there all the time. I think it’s gotten better over the last decade. […] I’m still encouraging parents to send their kids to Richmond public schools, even though our family’s experience has been that at least fifty percent of it was struggle.
We had a lot of poor leadership in our schools, which I think has changed. I can’t say for every school in the city, but I know for (John B. Cary and Bellevue) leadership has changed.
Our experience with my older child throughout all of schooling, the biggest struggle was losing teachers all the time, especially in high school. She had three different English teachers in one year.
I went to Thomas Jefferson, and a lot of the problems that existed in the school then still exist today. […] It’s not that the people didn’t care, I just think that our comprehensive schools, many of the teachers are overwhelmed. You have to kind of triage.
Do you have an idea of where could we go to fix that?
We have to work on, first of all, of course attracting teachers and keeping teachers. I agree with fully decompressing the salary scales and making sure that you’re paid more the longer you’re there.
We cannot have it where the teacher is in an overcrowded classroom and under supplied. I asked one guidance counselor, “What would be the number one thing that would improve this entire school?” I watched him run around putting out fires. He said, “If every department at least had one more staff member.” That was that one particular school.
If we want to keep teachers, we can’t throw them in a room of thirty, of that many students and then expect them to do all this data entry and be trauma informed. Teachers need to be trained and mentored but can we give them the setting, the number of students where everyone can work together.
I also want to know why, the first thing I want to hit and when I’m going around and talking to people who’ve applied for jobs, they’re saying no one contacted them. I want to know if this is true. Are these teachers and counselors really putting in applications and no one’s ever reached out to them – yet every year there’s a teacher shortage? I am walking the district here in the seventh and I’ve met teachers who are teaching in far out counties who applied here and no one ever contacted them.
All of these ideas what we’re hearing from candidates and politicians, wonderful, but we have to first give them the teacher, the environment to be able to implement any of this. I mean, we’re expecting miracles.
My second thing is, I think we need to really move forward and build on socioeconomic diverse schools, period. […] If we’re hearing on the news the school board member is trying to, Harris-Muhammed is calling out at a public meeting that a teacher said the National Guard needs to come in, is there any chance we’re ever going to attract anyone? I think she’s right to call that out.
We have to be honest about the real problems with the biggest amount of students in the school. We have to address that. We did actually, Binford, Binford within two years time with a magnet put in there and keeping the open enrollment seats by lottery instead of application only. At the time, the arts integrated was put into Binford, I think at least a hundred kid zoned for MLK, high poverty students were going to Binford. Now, they get a bus to go to Binford.
MLK is already at capacity. They suggest having it somewhere between eighty-five percent and ninety- or ninety-five percent capacity. That’s their ideal. MLK is basically considered at capacity. If everyone zoned actually went there, it would be over capacity.
We need to be pampered and we’re not going to get pampered. What I mean is, we need a hyper-focus on what everyone in the schools, the parents, the teachers, and the parents and kids outside the schools, to come to the table and say how do we want our East End schools to look.
I want to show people the maps that we’re drawing up… I want to show people the facility plans. What’s going to be over capacity, under capacity? How do we want it to look?
We know putting in certain options brings in a socioeconomic diversity. Instead of always doing this across town, we need to do it in the East End. We are desperate for it, and we have the people and manpower here and now. I think we can do it, but it’s not going to be fast, it’s not going to be overnight but if you want your first move to improving Richmond public schools, it’s to actually get in there and go. If you don’t do that …
We need to go to the General Assembly on it, and I agree with the opt-out movement, I do. The law is right now, because [if you opt out] you know your kid gets a zero, the school gets a zero. […] What we need to say at the GA level, state level, don’t count any opt-outs against the school.
I want to talk about benchmarks. Not all schools have benchmarks, not all systems. Richmond does. Personally, when I looked at benchmark practice worksheets compared to the actual SOLs and I got walked through it, the benchmarks are poorly written, poorly organized, and more full of ridiculous trickery than actual SOLs.
You’re not learning… when I called the Virginia Department of Education about it, I was screaming. I couldn’t take it anymore at these benchmark tests. I even put it before an English professor at VCU and everyone just ripped it apart on how ridiculous it was. I called the Virginia Department of Education. You know what the testing department told me? They said, “We do not recommend benchmark tests.”